The Georgia Civil War Commission’s Black Confederates

Update: Once again, thanks to Andy Hall for doing the leg work of looking into the documentation behind the claim that Clark Lee was a Confederate soldier. No surprise by what he did not find to support such a claim nor that what is available points to a very different picture of Lee’s presence in the the army.

I have no doubt that the Georgia Civil War Commission has done some excellent work in the area of battlefield preservation, but this is the kind of website that troubles me as both a historian and especially as a teacher. Check out the following two panels that the commission has unveiled in recent years.  The list of members does not include anyone prominent in the field of Civil War history and given what I have to share with you I am not surprised one bit to find Charles Kelley Barrow’s name on this list. Barrow is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and has been a vocal advocate of the black Confederate narrative over the years.

The first panel tells the story of Confederate General Patrick Cleburne’s plan to enlist slaves into the army.

Cleburne black Confederate

It is clear that not much thought went into this text. No mention is made that not only was Cleburne’s plan immediately rejected by President Davis and others, he was ordered not to discuss it further. Also conveniently left out is any sense of just how controversial this plan was throughout the Confederacy as it was debated in the army, on the home front and in Richmond at the very end of the war as a means to stave off defeat. Continue reading “The Georgia Civil War Commission’s Black Confederates”

Why Historians Should Care About Black Confederates

Over the past few years, Leslie Madsen-Brooks has been working on an essay that explores the implications of the controversy surrounding black Confederates on our understanding of history in the digital age. It’s been available online as part of an open peer-review project and will soon be available, along with other essays, in Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (University of Michigan Press, 2013).  The author steers her reader through the evolution of the black Confederate narrative and what it tells us about how history is being done, who is writing it, changing assumptions about authority resulting from this digital turn, and why professional historians ought to care.

This is the first scholarly essay that I know of that takes this controversy seriously. I am putting the finishing touches on an essay that also explores some of these issues for an upcoming issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. The author gives us quite a bit to think about in this essay. Unfortunately, all too often I’ve experienced a cold reception from fellow Civil War historians whenever the topic arises. Many simply can’t imagine why I take the issue seriously or why it is important that they care what those outside the academy are writing on blogs, wikis and Facebook pages. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took a historian from outside the field of Civil War history to take this subject seriously.

Those of you who take the time to read the essay will recognize most of the players. Madsen-Brooks utilizes this blog as well as those authored by Brooks Simpson, Andy Hall, and Corey Meyer. You will also hear from my friend Connie Ward (a.k.a. Chastain), Ann DeWitt, and Dave Tatum. It’s a real circus.

I strongly encourage you to leave your comments below on any aspect of this essay to assist me further in thinking through these issues.

The Esprit de Corps of Confederate Camp Servants

Glad to see that so many of you found this morning’s post to be of interest. There is so much to unpack in the Caffey book regarding the presence of camp servants with the Army of Northern Virginia.  This passage is of particular interest to me.

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other.

First, here is one example that potentially helps to explain why so many Union soldiers and other observers claimed to have sighted entire companies and even regiments of blacks in the Confederate army.  More interesting, however, is the question of why camp servants were allowed to march together in what appears to have all the trappings of a distinct unit in the Confederate army. This is pure speculation based on my extensive reading into the primary and secondary sources so feel free to disagree.

We know that individual camp servants functioned in small groups within companies.  They worked together to complete specific chores, especially washing and cooking so it’s not surprising to find these men bonding with one another.  Marching as a group not only deepened those ties with one another, but gave the men a sense that they were a distinct part of the army itself.  In other words, it encouraged a sense of belonging.  The passage above points to unofficial ranks, which suggests that these men may have been disciplined by one another.  Confederates likely understood that the uniforms and marching together would have tied their slaves more closely to the army and even encourage them to stay rather than run away.  This would have benefited the Army of Northern Virginia given its proximity to the Army of the Potomac through much of the war and especially when it was on march in Maryland in 1862 and Pennsylvania the following summer.

Caffey suggests that the discipline exerted by servants may have been more severe than that of their masters.

I know an instance of a boy who ran from the Eighteenth Mississippi, just before Manassas, July, 1861. He was recaptured during the engagement; for the Yankees putting him in the front, together with other runaways, made him very uneasy, so he slipped into our lines again, but was seized by two colored men, who observed the manoeuvre, and was handed over to his master. His owner refused to see him, and the general wish of our servants was, that he should be hung or shot for a traitor! He was given over to them, and met a death at their hands more violent than any white person’s anger could have suggested. Incidents of this kind, however, illustrative of the colored people’s loyalty to the South, are too numerous and tedious for enumeration.

What better than slaves disciplining themselves.  It goes without saying that at no point does Caffey shift from describing these men as slaves to soldiers.  In fact, Caffey, like others, was entertained by these men on march.  “They make me laugh.”  What the author illustrates is the extent to which the challenges of camp life, march, and even battle stretched the master – slave relationship. We can read into this account what we want.  There is plenty here to highlight the narrow and self serving interpretations found on hundreds of black Confederate websites.

In the end, what we can see, if we pay careful attention, is how the Army of Northern Virginia practiced slavery.

Slavery Traveled With the Army of Northern Virginia

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Impressed Slaves Working on Confederate Earthworks

Included in Allen Guelzo’s new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, is a brief examination of the size of both armies.  In looking at the Army of Northern Virginia Guelzo includes a few sources that estimate the number of slaves, who performed various roles as personal servants and impressed workers.  One particular account by English-born Confederate artilleryman, Thomas Caffey, published in 1864 stood out in particular.  The source is available online and includes and incredibly detailed, but self serving picture of the role and motivation of slaves in the Confederate army.  Here are a few excerpts, but I encourage you to read the section in its entirety, which runs from pp. 278 to 285.

In our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash—nine tenths of the ditching falls to our share—yet in all these thousands I have yet to hear of more than one hundred who have run away from their owners! This is true, although they are continually moving about with ‘passes’ at all hours, and ten times more frequently than masters: what greater opportunities could be presented for escape? They are roaming in and out of the lines at all times, tramping over every acre of country daily, and I have not heard of more than six instances of runaways in our whole brigade, which has a cooking and washing corps of negroes at least one hundred and fifty strong! ….

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other. They scour the country far and wide for chickens, milk, butter, eggs, and bread, for which they pay little or nothing; always stoutly swearing they have expended all ‘massa’gave them, and unblushingly asking for more….

There was a very old, gray-haired cook in an Alabama regiment,” Jenkins remarked, “who would follow his young master to the war, and had the reputation of a saint among the colored boys of the brigade; and as he could read the Bible, and was given to preaching, he invariably assembled the darkeys on Sunday afternoon, and held meetings in the woods. He used to lecture them unmercifully, but could not keep them from singing and dancing after ‘tattoo.’ Uncle Pompey, as he was called, was an excellent servant, and an admirable cook, and went on from day to day singing hymns among his pots round the camp-fire, until the battle of ‘Seven Pines’ opened, when the regiment moved up to the front, and was soon engaged.

Caffey wrote this before the Gettysburg campaign kicked off, but it is not a stretch to imagine such numbers accompanying the Army of Northern Virginia as it moved through the slave state of Maryland and into free Pennsylvania.  We know that as it did the state’s free and formerly enslaved blacks fled, some of who ended up trapped and sent south by invading Confederates.  The Army of Northern Virginia operated, in large part, around the work of slaves.  As an institution the army’s reliance on slave labor ought to be seen in line with the operations of southern railroads, industrial centers such as Tredegar and, of course, large plantations.  All of them relied on the forced labor of slaves.

And for a brief moment in the summer of 1863 this system of labor, that was so important to the pre-war South and by extension, the Confederacy, was introduced into free Pennsylvania by the Army of Northern Virginia.

Don Troiani’s Black Confederate Soldier

Don Troiani, black ConfederateI do enjoy perusing the Confederate Heritage Facebook pages.  The topic of black Confederates is a favorite among these folks. Many of the images and other references are new to me, but more importantly their handling of this “evidence” serves as a reminder of just how incapable some people are in applying even the most rudimentary skills of interpretation.  Instead, as can be seen in the comments section, these postings do little more than offer reassurance to the true believers and reinforce a strict us v. them mentality.

I am surprised that I have not come across this particular image by Civil War artist Don Troiani.  Most of you know that over the years I’ve owned a number of his prints, including a giclee edition of “Mahone’s Charge” which I used as the cover art for my book.  A few months ago I learned that Troiani painted a USCT.  This particular image is included in Don Troiani’s Regiments & Uniforms of the Civil War on p. 208.  It depicts what Troiani calls a “Black Trooper” in the 4th Tennessee Cavalry at Chickamauga in September 1863. Continue reading “Don Troiani’s Black Confederate Soldier”